Monday, October 31, 2005

Handy Halloween Tips

As a public service to all three of the people reading here, I present the following candy management schemes, which, if adhered to, could make Halloween a great deal more entertaining.

Rule Number One (and a proud Lyden family tradition at that): There are two classes of candy. First class is Reese's, Snickers, and "fun size" versions of regular full-sized candy bars. Second class is Necco wafers, Dum-Dum suckers, and Tootsie Rolls.

First class candy goes to all trick-or-treaters in costume ages 11 or younger. From ages 8 to 11, the question, "What are you supposed to be?" is asked. If an insufficient answer is given, second class is an option, but probably not.

Overall, the general sense should be that you have come to my house and asked me for food. I expect, AT MINIMUM, a little effort if you want something good.

Rule Number Two: Second class candy to all kids 12 and above, particularly those who show up and claim to be "skateboarders," "teenagers," or "students." A desultory application of face paint or eye makeup does not make you worthy of a Butterfinger bar. Get a paper route and, while you're at it, get out of my driveway.

EXCEPTION: Older brothers and sisters escorting younger siblings are entitled to First Class. As parents and siblings ourselves our household seeks to encourage this sort of behavior. Plus, most of the kids doing this are properly mortified at being seen by their friends and deserve a reward.

Rule Number Three: You WILL say "trick or treat" if you're five or above. Jabbing a sack at me isn't enough. I'll stand there. You rang my doorbell. I expect a performance.

Rule Number Four: I reserve the right to give you ANYTHING if the candy runs out: Jell-O boxes, change, granola, popsicles, cans of tomato paste, whatever. The candy supply is finite. You should have gotten here earlier.

Rule Number Five: The Necco wafers that you got last year and didn't eat may bear an astonishing resemblance to this year's Necco wafers. Your darkest suspicions are true. I give out candy that's older than my kids when I use it for the sole purpose of discouraging you doing this sort of thing next year.

Rule Number Six: Halloween is for kids, despite what the casinos are promoting, particularly those holding parties where the female guests are encouraged to wear two Band-Aids and a handkerchief. Behave accordingly or I'll break out the Halloween pool cues.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Where I've been

Maybe this will help answer it.

Six months. Two races. Seventy pounds. How it all happened.

Some of you may remember last year's Idiocy Updates in which I talked about preparing for the Lake Las Vegas sprint Triathlon, which was intended to be a stepping-stone to the Accenture Chicago Triathlon this year.

After spending several months of not working out, not training, not even jogging to get the mail, I looked up in January and found out I weighed 300 pounds.


I immediately set about asking the important questions, such as "can I find a way to write about this?" Early efforts at that task were headed under GOING OPRAH and are located at I had a personal chef quit before she even cooked a meal for us, probably because we wouldn't throw a huge dinner party that would make her enough money to cook for somebody trying to lose a whole lot of weight, a pregnant woman, and a 2-year-old.

I mentioned a huge list of positions that I wanted filled, and one of them was a Minister of Perspective. As badly as I wanted to do this, middle class on the cheap, I wasn’t rich but was worried I’d start acting like it. Like I was going to start yelling, “That BITCH! These are FRENCH green beans, not CUT green beans! How the fuck am I supposed to get HEALTHY if no one’s DOING their JOB?”

Ken volunteered. Several times. I kind of put it off. Then he sent this:

How's this sound: the triathlon is six months away if I'm doing
simple math correctly. I know there's an outside chance that you won't
be there because of the new baby, but using it as a target date, how
about for every pound you lose between now and then, I'll donate $3 to a charity (and no, the World Organization to Get Jim a New Wetsuit
Because the Last One Doesn't Fit is not a charity; I may do a memorial gift for Janet since it's uncertain how much longer she has) and from the triathlon through the end of the year, I'll match the first sum if you keep the weight off. I know Nat said you get a new wardrobe for 200 pounds, but what I want to see is work in the right direction.


Janet was Ken’s girlfriend. She had terminal brain cancer. Suddenly the bitching about green beans seemed kind of small.

I wanted to use a free personal trainer that was included with my gym membership, and I figured that would be easy to find. I cancelled two appointments with people and started going back myself.

I've realized something about myself in the past year since the last race. I don't do anything halfway. I'm either a zealot who works out multiple times a day or I don't go. So I started swimming in the mornings, after a week of setting and resetting the alarm, and doing an alternating weights and cardio workout in the afternoons.

I saw that the trainers, easily identifiable by their bright yellow shirts that said, "INSTRUCTOR - Any questions please ask" and their vacant stares at themselves in the mirror. Even if it was free this was going to be overpriced. The goal at that point became to find another trainer.

I remember what Penn Jillette said about computer technicians: "The chances of you getting ripped off are infinitely smaller if you pick somebody instead of them picking you." I started watching other people, and that's when I saw this woman berating another woman on a machine. She wasn't angry, she wasn't screaming, but she was really intense, almost as if she were doing the workout herself. I saw her answer several questions on the way out, and people looked to her with some sort of authority, even though she didn't work there. I asked her as she was walking out if she knew any of the club trainers that were good. We got to talking more and she said several things that made me nod. She said she wasn't there to hurt people or berate them, but to push them further than they thought. I liked that. She also had weight issues when she was a kid, and wound up doing fitness competitions. Philosophically, it seemed that we were matched up pretty well.

I knew that a triathlon coach wouldn't do me any good when I had to lose a significant amount of weight to race in the first place. I also knew that somebody laid back wasn't going to help me either. And I certainly didn't want somebody to tell me to slow down. After some consultation, I had a trainer.



Thank you very much for the opportunity as well. I am looking forward to meeting you and helping you to achieve what you so rightfully deserve. 3:30 is fine. Would you like to start tomorrow? I always feel the sooner the better!!! NOW is happening . Please feel free to call me and let me know if that is alright.


I figured I’d have a couple of weeks, get myself going on the Stairmaster, not get winded at every opportunity, and show up with at least a little bit of a head start. But no. Here was somebody who wanted to renovate the house before I’d even had a chance to sweep up.

I started tracking my workouts, and even more important, I had help. Ken, who read the GOING OPRAH entry and persistently asked about the project, volunteered to server as my Minister of Perspective. That meant that I'd send him an E-mail every day with a status update: workout, meals, plans for the next day, everything he'd need to know to tell what I was doing right and wrong.

So when I showed up for the first meeting with Nannette Johnstone, I had spreadsheets that showed what I was eating, that showed the workouts I was doing, what I weighed, everything. She was suitably impressed. She pointed out that writing stuff down made it 80% more likely to be successful. She noticed that I was eating all kinds of things that weren't good for me, and this was an improvement over what I was eating previously. She got me a diet that cut out fat AND carbohydrates, calorie and carb targets, and the assurance that if I stick with it it's gonna work. And I got to learn all sorts of dieting trivia that I discovered on my own, such as the fact that edamame's good for lunch, and if you want to hit a calorie target without adding carbs or fat, Bacardi and Diet Coke did the trick.

We found out that I had set my target heart rate way too high for the workouts I was doing. I was prepared to go on the Stairmaster for 45 minutes at a 165 rate, and by the time I got off, I was lightheaded. Apparently this simulated to my body that I was being chased by a serial killer. Nannette pointed out that this would lead to my body storing food rather than actually burning it up. She wanted me at a cardio target between 124 and 144, going three miles an hour, on an 8.0 incline. This was like going from the double black diamond run to the bunny slopes, but I knew that she was the boss. If I could do this myself I wouldn’t weigh what I did.

At about 12 weeks into it, I'd lost 38 pounds. Clothes weren't fitting me anymore. Belts had to be changed out. Lunch now consisted of chicken breasts and soybeans with Diet Coke. All this time, Natalie was plugging along with Kid B in residence. And then I decided to make things really interesting.

I rediscovered a website that I'd found around the time of the Lake Las Vegas race in 2004. At, they had an 18-week training program for an Olympic distance triathlon. If I built that into my program, why, that would be just in time for the race. There was a "beginner" program, for ten weeks, and an “intermediate” program, for 18. Despite never having raced an international distance before, I felt that the intermediate was the better approach. This usually meant a couple of workouts per day. Trying to work this around a toddler’s schedule wouldn’t be easy. But like I said, zealot or nothing, and off I went. Eight weeks had gone by and every single day had a grueling workout, sometimes two, and the weight kept coming off.

In the middle of this, the following arrived:

Just so you know, Janet died earlier this morning. There'll be an
e-mail in a little while to the entire group, but I'm still trying to grasp the right words and needed to see what that sentence looks like.

More later.


Everything else seemed small again. I was determined to not only do this right, but to set the bar amazingly high.

After another month, a significantly more pregnant Natalie called me at work.

“There’s a race in San Diego that I’m looking at. It’s a sprint, and it would probably be a good way to see if you’re ready.”
“When is it?”
“June 26.”

Nat’s due date was fluctuating anywhere from mid-June to mid-July. I didn’t think that I would be able to head out for an evening, much less a whole state away for a race. She arranged for her mom to come out earlier, and I signed up. Two days before the race, our son was born. I said goodbye while she was still in the hospital. She said, “Do good.”

SAN DIEGO, JUNE 26, 2005

Several things concerned me about San Diego. One, it was an ocean swim, and I’d never swum for any distance in the ocean. I wasn’t sure what it would be like. Two, I had no accompaniment. I had no idea what it would be like to attempt a race by myself, and Nat wasn’t going to be able to make the trip.

Let me try to explain some of the dilemma in this sport. First off, there’s a whole lot of gear. My item list for the San Diego race totaled 26 different things that I would need just to compete, not counting backups and reserves. I wear a wetsuit that weighs about 8 pounds, my bike weighs close to 20, there’s towels and goggles and water and gear and I have to carry all of this in and out by myself at the race site. Getting to the race site is usually never easy; it’s always by a large body of water, notoriously difficult for parking on at least one side.

Second, open water swimming is frightening. You never feel like you’re going anywhere, there’s no lane markers so people swim into you all the time, or you do the same to others. Around a turning buoy someone might swim right over the top of you if you’re not paying attention. Also, Lake Las Vegas, like the Pacific Ocean, does not feature convenient stripes at the bottom to follow along with.

And third, you have to manage how tired you allow yourself to get. If you swim harder than you ever have in your life, you still have to ride a bicycle an awfully long way. You push too hard on your bike and your legs will be Jell-O before you run out of transition.

So keeping all of this in mind, I knew that having all of these thoughts running through my head, in a hotel room all by myself, would not be good. Trying to sleep, having nightmares about drowning or being kicked in the head, in a city I don’t know, didn’t seem like ideal race prep. I asked if Brian could go; that weekend was the Little League playoffs, in which he was coaching. So I asked Nannette, and happily, she agreed. We were booked at the host hotel in adjacent rooms and everything was set.

We made the drive out to San Diego, five hours, without having the radio on. By the time I realized where we were after we’d been talking, we were about three-quarters there. We got everything unloaded and headed for the race expo.

Triathlon is funny because it’s a sport that a lot of people have heard of but not a lot of people actually do. Most of the time, when you talk to anyone about it, they’ll think you’re crazy for trying to do all of it at once. I’ve been told I’m crazy by my trainer, a therapist, my doctor, and a host of friends. But when you get to a race expo, it’s the people who sell the stuff and usually are racers themselves. So when you say, “I’m going to swim 1500 meters this morning and follow that with an hour run,” they’re liable to go, “Sure,” or “Why wouldn’t you?” rather than wondering if I should go lie down.

At the race expo there were bicycles and wetsuits for sale, as well as picking up race packets. This was all set up under small tents in a park. As per usual at these events, I had to sign a waiver saying that yes, the sport is dangerous, yes, I can swim, and yes, if something happens to me I’m not going to sue anybody. Well, sure. I mean, anything where they’re writing numbers on your arm and leg in permanent marker so that you can be identified easier isn’t the safest thing on earth. And there were samples of nutrition bars, gel packs, granola, all kinds of stuff to have you ready for the race. We strolled around, got me checked in, and listened to the course talk. They explained that the swim should be plenty fast and would have a start well out in the ocean, the bike had a few areas that were notorious for spectacular crashes, and the run was through a public-use area so a lot of people might not know what’s going on.

We walked over to the Clif Bar stand; I grabbed an apple cinnamon Styrofoam textured something-or-other. As I attempted to chew this, one of the Clif workers says to the other, “There’s no “I” in team, Gina.”
“There is in “win,” Nannette shouted at her.
The rest of the granola nearly fell out of my mouth. I’d used that response line for years.

I parked my bicycle in transition and zip-tied it to the rack. They would be watched overnight. We went back to the hotel to drop off the million sheets of paper and free things we’d picked up.

After a dinner of swordfish, tuna, and some walking-around Starbucks, it was time to get back to the room. I remembered what it was like trying to sleep before the first triathlon. I was waking up every twenty minutes.

I started typing up the day in review for Ken. On the computer, I had the usual loud, angry rap music that I used to use when I was trying to get myself up for tennis matches. I jumped up and down a few times, walked back and forth, and tried visualizing things going well.

I’ll throw it down your throat like Barkley/You see my car keys?/You’ll never get these/They belong to the 98 Posse…

I had all my stuff laid out, right down to the backup shirts and socks. The cooler with the iced-down Gatorade was waiting. One of those I would chug immediately after the race. I set the alarm clock, set the wake-up call, and fell asleep.

Race morning was slightly overcast, cool and a little bit foggy. It was the crack of dawn when we headed down to the site. The day before we couldn’t stop talking; today I was essentially mute. I had never seen the bicycle course. There was a hill there that a friend of ours said might be of some concern, but the rest of it should be fine. He said he rode it when he was out of shape; I assumed that I could do it. Besides, with the expo and the closings, there simply wasn’t time.

We got to the parking lot and I could see the buoys out in the ocean. Now, the main thing to remember about open water swimming is it is never as far as it looks. When I swim in a 25-meter pool, I have to do 30 laps to get to 1500 meters. I never really see what the big distance looks like, until the morning I actually have to swim it. In this case, I wasn’t too worried, because it was only a 500-meter swim in a sprint race. I could do 500 meters in my sleep-and hell, with all the training I was doing, I had been. I looked at where the start area was. There was no boat, no barge, no anything. You just swam out there and treaded water until the horn went off.

I called Nat’s cell phone as I was standing there in my wetsuit. Nannette insisted on taking extensive pictures of the race preparation, including trying to put on a skin-tight outfit and swim cap, setting up the transition area, and heading out with goggles and swim cap on. About ten minutes before I was due to start, I walk into thick mud at San Diego Harbor with a few dozen others as we get ready to swim out.

The water is cold but not unbearable. I feel like I’ll get used to it. Other people are pretty cold, though, and this is an obvious topic of conversation.

“Did you see that dude back there in the Speedo briefs and no wetsuit?”
“Damn. Unreal.”
“Guy’s got to have nuts the size of oranges to try that.”
“Not anymore.”
“Ten more minutes in this and he’ll spit ‘em out.”

I am in the Clydesdale wave, for athletes that weigh more than 200 pounds. I weighed in at 250 for this race. Along with my wave is a special military division, and right behind us are challenged athletes. There’s a guy racing today with only one leg. Nothing I do today will be that tough.

A man in a boat with a bullhorn calls out, “Thirty seconds, wave 15.”

Guys start looking at each other and saying, Good luck. Behind me, a gentleman starts pounding the water with his arms and screaming, trying to psych himself up. I check my goggles one more time.

“Ten seconds.”

No turning back, I start thinking. I’m looking out at the buoys; they don’t look far.


The water starts churning. I start kicking my legs a little, keeping my arms up to stay out of the initial frenzy. There’s next to nobody behind me, then, next thing you know, I’m moving pretty well. The first buoy was coming up; I was in a comfortable swim stroke, the water felt good, POW…somebody swims over my left side. I don’t breathe on the left, no big deal, keep moving, get back on pace, all is well, get to it. I got to the first buoy and just sort of arm-paddled with everyone else around it.

My goggles were starting to fog up, and the second buoy was coming straight ahead, probably about 25 meters away. As the fog picked up, I realized I couldn’t see anything in front of me, because at that hour, I was swimming towards the east and the sun was directly in my face. I couldn’t see any more of the buoys, so I decided to follow the feet of the person in front of me. I started losing him a little and had a hard time getting rhythm. I had to fix the goggles or I was going to be all over the place. While still kicking my feet, I pulled them off of my face, wiped out the fog, and put them back on.

The next buoy was close. After all this screwing around I was almost done with the swim. I started to push it; I knew I wasn’t far. After about five more strokes I was around the last buoy and all I had to do was head for the shore. I made the last turn and remembered the advice from the video on open water swimming; don’t try to get up until your hand touches the bottom, because you’ll just be running against a wall of water and you’ll waste energy. I ran up through the muddy hill, splashed my feet in the kiddie pool, and jogged slowly to my bicycle.

I assessed how bad I was feeling and tried to make some decisions. I felt much better than I thought and figured that I was ready for the bicycle.

Even though I was nearly last out of the water in Lake Las Vegas, a swim that featured 64-degree water and hyperventilation on my part, it was the bicycle leg that killed me. I had expended so much energy just trying to get myself out of the water that I didn’t have enough energy for some very significant hills right at the beginning of the course. That was combined with the fact that I barely knew how to use the pedals on my bicycle and still had scabs from the fall, I wasn’t aware that the gears on my bike were reversed on one side, and I dehydrated early on in the ride and had no water left. I couldn’t climb the hills, so I’d dismount and climb them on foot. The real lesson of Lake Las Vegas was that I knew jack about riding a bicycle correctly, never mind competitively, and that even if you feel like something is a good idea, Rule Number One is train how you race, race how you trained.

This time I came to San Diego with several months of mileage put on a magnetic trainer in my garage. I knew not only what gears I felt comfortable in, but also how to establish a race pace. I had tires that weren’t as knobby to cut down on friction and I had a new computer that told me how fast I was pedaling, which was more important to keep constant in a triathlon than just going all-out. I knew to pedal in circles instead of just pushing. I knew a lot of things, except for one: what did the road look like?

It was time to find out. I stripped off my wetsuit, where underneath I had on my bicycle spandex, shirt, and race number attached to a belt. I held myself up on the bike rack and stomped my way out of it. Now I had to put on a pair of socks-no small feat when you’re shaking. I’d lost enough weight that the cold water had gotten into my suit and soaked my clothes. Nice and refreshing on the ride; bad news when you’re trying to tie your shoelaces. I put on my gloves and my helmet and started running out; I felt a flapping from my left foot.

I hadn’t done the Velcro strap over the laces. I had to set up the kickstand, thread the strap, Velcro it shut, kick the stand back, and start running again. In triathlon, there’s a mount-dismount zone that you have to run your bike to before you can get on it. This is so riders don’t go straight to the racks and take out fellow competitors or other bicycles. I jumped on the bike and started pedaling.

An up hill was coming, right out of the chute. This was a bridge over the highway near the airport. The gears I was in made it easy. I coasted down and saw that the road was absolutely flat. I geared up, making it harder to pedal, and maintained my cadence.

Thanks to an army of volunteers and police, triathletes get to compete in some pretty cool places. I was on Harbor Drive right in front of my hotel, an eight-lane road that yesterday was absolutely packed. Today we had the whole center of it. I sped down the center. Strangers clapped from the sidelines. I made the turn toward the ocean and headed through the side streets.

After the turn there was a slight climb, and then it got a little more severe. I was about halfway up the first climb when I got a look at the street sign – Canon Drive. “So this is Canon,” I said to myself. I moved to the right.

Other cyclists passed me at frenetic speeds, even uphill. One of the drawbacks is, in my current weight configuration, I’m not going to buy myself a fast bicycle that won’t fit me right, so I ride a fat-tire city bike. My top-end gears would be about in the low to middle set on a road bike, so I can pedal as hard as I can but it’s like having four cylinders instead of six. Still, the goal this year was to fix the engine, and the sort of bike I was looking for would cost several thousand dollars. I didn’t know if I wanted to make that kind of investment at this point.

So as I kept pedaling and getting passed, I concentrated on other things. I made sure my cadence was the same. I made sure I was pedaling right. I switched the gears when I needed to. I thanked the volunteers who were blocking the streets for us. I slugged some water, and I wasn’t going to jump up and pound the pedals, because I had no idea what was ahead of me hill-wise. A couple of them had sneaked up on me after Canon Drive and I worried they would get more severe. I asked a family that was clapping, “Just over there, right?” “Not far now,” she replied. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. A lot of people yell things that they think are encouraging. I’ve had people tell me, “Looking good!” as I was spilling Gatorade all over myself.

I pedaled through the gates of the Navy base and glanced to my right. There was the Pacific Ocean, with a few sailboats. On my left was a military cemetery overlooking a submarine base. I kept pedaling uphill, cautiously, feeling good but saving myself for what could have been coming. Finally, I got to the top of the hill, to Cabrillo National Monument.

I was looking down at San Diego through the early morning. The view was spectacular. The course cones guided us around a cul-de-sac and back down the way we came. I pumped my fist. I knew this meant it was mostly downhill, and I’d finish the bike ride feeling good. I solved a minor crisis by tossing a water bottle to a guy admiring the view. “Sir, I don’t want to litter. Could you take this, please?” I threw him a perfect underhand spiral and switched the bottle from the back cage to the front. I hammered on the pedals and now, thanks to some of the extra weight on my bike and myself, I was passing people. I was freewheeling in my top gear, so there was no point in pedaling. I just ducked down low and coasted as long as I could.

Soon I was back at Harbor drive, flying towards the bridge. I unhooked my pedals as I was coasting down that first hill. I jogged my bike into transition and assessed things there. My legs were a little sore, and most of the field had moved on. I got everything on and started a slow jog through the park.

I trained with a heart rate monitor for several months. When I’d gotten out of the swim, it read 180, which is pretty close to maximum. My guess was, since I was wearing the transmitter strap in the ocean, the salt water affected the contacts when the water got into my wetsuit. All the same, I was reading at 165-15 beats higher than where I’m supposed to be walking. Besides, this is a training race; I was using it to get ready for Chicago. I decided I didn’t feel like I was in trouble and I was going to keep pushing. I managed to run out of the whole park without having to walk. We had to bypass a parking lot, cross over a street, and run through the airport rental car parking lot, and then out along the ocean. When I finally got to the shoreline, I spent my time looking for a boat called the Star of India, an old tall ship with a giant American flag on it. I would recognize that and remembered from the map that it was pretty close to where I was going.

I walked and ran, walked and ran, slogged along, and ultimately made it to that boat. It was fun being cheered on by puzzled tourists and in particular, a homeless gentleman who kept saying, “Come on 2628! Come on 3298! Let’s go 1485!” The last being my race number, which I was wearing on the front of my shirt.

I passed the tall ship. My heart was cranking pretty good. I decided to shuffle a little more to slow it down. Another gentleman from my wave caught up, and we paced off of each other toward the park at the end. I then looked down and saw my heart rate was showing 192; I had to let him go.

The park was mobbed with people standing along snow fences, cheering us all on. I’d never seen so many people at a race finish. As I turned the last corner, I saw Nannette, cheering and waving. She took a picture. I was grinning like crazy. I was 100 yards from the finish.

There were two gentlemen jogging alongside each other and talking. They were 20 yards in front of me. “Training race,” one side of my brain said. “Smoke ‘em,” said the other.

I started to sprint. An arm-flailing, ghetto-running, the-cops-are-coming sprint towards the finish mat. I got right next to them, three abreast, with ten yards to spare, and one said to the other, “C’mon, dude! The kid’s gonna beat us!” They started to sprint. I stepped back and waved them ahead or we would have all hit the finish booth at the same time and fallen over like a Three Stooges routine.

I found Nannette in the crowd and pounded down some Gatorade, trying to put back anything into my stomach. I grabbed a quarter of a bagel and some orange juice. Nannette and I high-fived, laughed, and took pictures. She arrived knowing next to nothing about the sport that I’d chosen and left San Diego dying to try it, and now she wanted to see Chicago. I was back in it. I was ready. It was time.


There was more training to be done. I came back from San Diego to not only be a new Dad again, but having gone from wondering if something’s possible to finding ways to make it possible. Nannette said that our training now would focus more on intervals, and we rotated through some amazing sets where there was no time at all between machines.

My speedwork phase began a puzzling array of workouts that acknowledged that I could compete at the recommended distances but attempted to improve my times. I paid a decent bit of attention to my diet but I wasn’t monastic about it. Every 7 days or so, I’d eat something that would make Ken and Nannette cringe. The weight continued to come off, though. By the end of July I was flirting with the low 240s. The lowest I’ve weighed in a decade was 238 pounds.

The bicycle portion scared some of our houseguests, as well as Natalie. I remembered Chicago in August. While I knew that the mornings were cool, I also knew that wasn’t the case in the afternoon or evening. There was a very real chance it could be 90 degrees with humidity in the 70s. The way to beat it, I felt, was to get desert tough. I declined offers of a swamp cooler in our garage, even when temperatures climbed above 110. I was determined that no weather would stop me from completing the race. I wore a heart rate monitor and drank plenty of water, but no more than I could fit on the bicycle in 25 miles. If I had a sno-cone machine on a stationary bicycle next to me, it wouldn’t work.

I also got rather nonchalant about putting the bottles back into the cages on occasion. If they fell out, I refused to get off the bicycle. If I dropped a water bottle on Lake Shore Drive, I’d have gone twenty feet before I even got the “fu—“ out of my mouth. There was no point pretending that this was any different. I learned to do it in a slow, rehearsed motion, while not making eye contact with the cage. Better to miss the cage than to miss the pothole.

July consisted of logistics issues that drove me nearly insane. Part of the challenge of Chicago, even for the experienced triathlete, is the sheer size of the race. There are 7500 people out on the course. Some of them have done this for years, some of them have done training, and some of them have done neither. You have to have your bike into transition between 4:15 and 6:00 AM, as the race starts at 6:15. It would be unsafe to get there any later because they couldn’t ensure that some idiot walking with a bicycle wouldn’t take out a swimmer. They also want to guard against theft. To get a bicycle, towels, helmet, water, two kinds of shoes, and nutrition onto a site with no help needs some careful planning. I started writing up an itinerary.

As I looked over the schedule, I noticed that I wasn’t really going to be able to get much sleep. I would save time in some of the more obvious ways-getting body marked at the race registration on Friday rather than waiting for someone with a marker, going on Friday afternoon before most people got out of work, and trying to get workouts in early in the morning if they were needed, so that they didn’t disrupt the rest of the day. I booked flights for Nat and the kids, booked flights for Nannette and myself, and we would all be on our way. It was great that Natalie would get to see me do this, rather than staying at home with the kids.

The month flew by. Before I knew it, it was the end of July. I thought about the fact that I’d jawed about doing this race for almost three years. Now, as I counted down the days with Ken, I started wondering if I was really ready to take a swing at it. What if I had trouble the same as Lake Las Vegas? Would all of this have been for nothing? I mean, sure, losing the weight was great, but I didn’t want to say, “Never did the race, but damn I look pretty!” I worried about what I was eating, but too often didn’t worry at all. Sundays contained forty mile bike rides, and at the pace I was riding that meant that I would be burning several thousand calories over the two-hour ride, not to mention sweating through every article of clothing that I had on. At one point my cell phone buzzed regarding a work issue; I was in a deep sleep and apparently told Natalie, “It’s just my lap timer. It does that every time I come around.” She shoved me harder and I cleared the message. I was so far gone into this I didn’t know the way out.

Some of the swims were so long that all I could do was keep moving my arms and trying not to lose count. I’d be swimming for 2250 meters, which is 45 laps in the pool. I’d try to use mnemonics, quotes to think of that used the numbers. Occasionally someone would be standing next to me as I’d go, “They call me Sweetness, and I like to dance” as I breathed on a turn for lap number 34. I swam at night. I ran before dawn. I’ve been in the Las Vegas Athletic Club from every hour of the day except between two and four in the morning, and I know the maintenance crews that mop the track on the other side of those hours are the same people.

Cycling workouts were draining. When you step onto the bike to do forty miles, you’re going to be there for at least an hour and forty-five minutes, and that’s if you’re flying. The garage got hotter as the summer went on. My mother-in-law, a nursing professor in from Chicago to help us with the baby, and I would have the same conversation every night I was out there.

“Open the door.”
“But it’s hotter outside.”
“The air needs to circulate, it’s too stuffy in here.”
“And the lakefront’s not stuffy in August?”
“You’re going to get dehydrated.”
“That’s why I have the water.”
“You’re going to have a heart attack.”
“That’s why I have the heart rate monitor.”
“Please just open the door.”
“Go ahead.” She would open it about a foot. I’d pedal harder.

I had planned on renting a bicycle. I thought that with that heavy bike, if I could get myself a road bike and trick it up with my own pedals and water cages, I’d be in better shape than trying to ship my behemoth across the country. Granted, this was a clear violation of train how you race, race how you train, but I likened it to swinging in the on-deck circle with a donut around the bat. I could learn to ride a geared road bike in a couple of days, if I could just get one.

Except stores are as touchy about renting total strangers a $2000 piece of equipment that could easily be destroyed as you would be if someone said they were going to borrow your car to race at the Bonneville Salt Flats. I found one place that could do it. They were right on the lakefront. They had four road bikes. Ken could drive right out and pick them up and we wouldn’t have any issues whatsoever.

The trouble was, the bicycle people could never get their story straight. First I was confirmed. Then I wasn’t. Then I had a bike that they’d set aside. Then it was first-come first-serve. One of the store staff was surprised I wanted to confirm a rental for a month away; I told him that if I didn’t have a bicycle, I couldn’t race. Ultimately we decided that I’d be going into battle on the same warhorse I’d been training on. Nannette, and everyone else around me, agreed it was a much smarter move.

Ultimately we were four weeks out. I was jogging on the track and turned a corner, and something felt funny. My left foot was hurting every time it touched the ground. I slowed down and ultimately cut the run off.

This was not good. I’d had stress fractures before, and it felt a lot like this-a sharp pain in the center of your foot that hurts to put weight on, to flex, even to put on a shoe. It was bad enough the next day that I couldn’t ignore it.

I felt sick inside. I’m stubborn, but my wife would not tolerate permanent orthopedic damage. As much as I might think to myself that I could run 6.2 miles on a broken foot, I knew that Natalie wouldn’t give me the chance. I could tell her what happened and hear that I needed to get a medical exemption and we could try again next year. Or I could not tell her and fight through whatever pain hit me on the run, being careful to baby it up until the race, then chug some Advil and try to escape punishment. Anything that happened in the race wasn’t going to matter-hey, these things happen, right?

I didn’t tell her.

I started wearing Nike sandals around the house, because I didn’t have to tie them. I didn’t take any Advil because I didn’t want to mask the pain; I would feel it and get used to it.

The next day I had to loosen the laces in my dress shoes. There wasn’t much swelling, but a little bruising. Just like the first time, I thought.

I called and made a doctor’s appointment. He couldn’t see me until August 13.

Now that was a tightrope. If he diagnosed me with something like a break, and I got hurt, the race would not cover me because I signed off that I was in good enough health to do the race and had no pre-existing medical conditions. This would leave a paper trail. At the same time, if he told me it was nothing, I could run like it was nothing and get back on the track to train it, being careful to shut it all down if things didn’t look good. If he said it takes six weeks to heal, like they told me with the first stress fracture, that would pass over the race entirely, and that would be no-go.

I waited a couple days before I told Nannette about it. I figured she competed; she knew what it was like to lead up to a goal and all of a sudden it might be taken away from you just by stupid dumb luck. I hadn’t twisted the foot. I hadn’t jumped. If my body had chosen now to make it Just One of Those Things, I was probably screwed. On the other hand, pain’s a part of the sport. I was going to be hurting after the race if I was in perfect health. What difference would it make if my foot hurt alongside everything else?

I knew Natalie had competed too, but I was her husband, first and foremost. Risking fitness goals was one thing and sacrificing my health was another.

Nannette said it would be best to wait for the doctor’s appointment to decide anything. There was no thumbs-up or down. We stayed off of the foot in workouts and stretching, and I walked instead of running, or added in swim sessions. She suggested a blood-pool method and lots of ice to heal it. My dad was in town; I told him the foot was sore, and he suggested ice and elevation. I wrapped a cold compress around my bare foot and left it there for an hour.

The foot turned blue. I hadn’t worn a sock; the ice bag stuck to my foot and I had to peel it off. The area of the foot that hurt was better, but now I was missing a patch of skin about the size of a quarter off the bottom of my foot, and that made it harder to step, sandals or no sandals.

Jarren saw the big red spot. “Daddy hurt.”

“No, Daddy’s fine.”

I told Natalie what was going on, and told her I’d already made the doctor’s appointment. She suggested that I also go in for a full physical, to make sure there wasn’t anything else that would stop me from doing this race. I told her that it had been hurt for a while, and it was one of a series of bad decisions.

My training felt adversarial with Natalie, even though it shouldn’t have. We seemed to be talking past each other most of the time. I knew that she wanted me to do the race, but I also knew what it took for me to feel like I was doing enough. It never felt like enough. I worked out at lunch, in the early mornings, right after work, sometimes after the kids went to sleep, and we didn’t see each other for long stretches, being just courteous rather than being husband and wife. Add to that the fact that she’d had a difficult pregnancy with our son Jayson and had gained a lot of weight and none off her clothes fit, and none of my clothes fit because I’d lost so much weight that I was throwing them out. I felt like I could be happy, but I could only be so happy, and it would be hard for her to be happy for me. Now my wife is smart, but how in the world I expected every one of her days that consisted of waking up with a newborn to be met with my happiness at a new cycling personal best, I don’t understand. We tried to smile through our respective exhaustion, but sometimes it felt taxing to even be in the same room.

I knew I was out of balance, but I didn’t know how to get it back and feel ready. I felt like any attempt to apologize would be conceding that I was taking too much time, and I wasn’t ready to do that. I felt that if I said, “This is how it’s got to be,” it would provoke her. On occasion I said it anyway. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to be tired or sore because it was self-inflicted, and she was trying to raise our family. She didn’t have the time or the energy to be a bigger part of what my life was, and any attempts I made to push myself to the limit were going to be focused on the race. Jarren would run her ragged all day and see me get my gym bag, and ask with a plaintive look, “Daddy go work out?” I’d nod.

There was a race, and I would be ready for it. I headed to an embroidery shop to have hats made for the spectators. I figured that a hat was something that everyone could wear, regardless of size, and I could throw it on during the race or right after it. My sister went with me.

The hats would be black, and would feature a gambling theme on the front, specifically four aces-me, Natalie, Ken and Nannette. I dubbed this group “Team Sunshine” after my old nickname and E-mail signature, Lorenzo Sunshine. The sides of the hats would read the race date and Nannette’s company slogan – IAAR, for “It’s All About Results.” If I crossed the line and earned the hat that said on the back of it, “James Lyden – Triathlete,” that was one hell of a result. Three-hundred pounders don’t do Olympic triathlons without being trailed by a medical assistant. Besides, I wanted a way to acknowledge her contribution to everyone who received them. When I first started swimming I’d planned to hold up a blown-up photo of her logo at the finish line and get her a signed picture. Now that she would be there for the race, this was better. The three of them and I would get titles put on the hats. Nannette’s read “N. Johnstone – Trainer.” Ken’s would have read “Minister of Perspective,” because that was his title, but that wasn’t the easiest thing to fit on a baseball cap. I told the embroiderer, “Put ‘K. Faikus – Genius.”

He smiled. The next one was tricky. It really wasn’t a good time to try to be funny, but there were deadlines. I got on the cell phone.
“Hey, I’m here with Julie and we’re designing the hats. Would you like yours to say “Wife”, “Spouse” or “Triathlon Widow”?
A quick rush of air escaped her teeth. I have an amazing gift for being funny at the wrong times. We hung up pretty quick. Triathlon Widow it was.

It took us two hours to get these put together; they would be ready in about a week. I looked at samples, and everything looked good. And two days later, everything looked like we were set when he called to say the hats were ready. I showed up, and the hats were khaki.

Shit. Who was I, Arnold Palmer? This wasn’t no polo-shirt and v-neck sport. Black hats. Like the Blues Brothers. Like Public Enemy and Run-DMC. When I was a sullen tennis player the only part of my attire that wasn’t black was the yellow shirt that was my school colors. I don’t think I even wore colors until I started going out with Nat. The sample hat had been black, but apparently that was just to show off the artwork. I demanded he fix the whole dozen. This would mean throwing them out.

“You sure you can’t use them?”
“My shoes are black. My shorts are black. My bicycle’s black. My socks-well, my socks are red, white and blue, but that’s not the point. We’re going to need to fix this.”
“What day is the race?”
I rolled my eyes. “August 28. It’s right there on the side of the hat.”
He swore to fix it at no charge. I must have looked insane.

The doctor’s office frightened me. My foot felt better, but I hadn’t been running on it. My doctor is good enough that I trust him to make whatever decision he feels is best. If he said I could race, I was going to race. No question. If he said I shouldn’t race, I’d have to give that some thought.

He noticed right away I’d lost weight, and I hadn’t seen him in about nine months. We talked about what I was trying to do, and he said it was terrific; the last time I’d seen him he’d wanted my blood sugar checked to rule out diabetes. I told him I’d done the sprint in San Diego and just wanted to make sure I was OK. He explained things like hyponaetremia and burning muscle tissue for fuel. He did cross-training himself but never a triathlon; as he was about eight years older than me he said he had some issues with tendonitis.

I told him about the foot. He looked at it, and he said, “You know it’s not a stress fracture. It’s in the wrong place.” He pointed to the spot on my foot that had been broken before. “HERE’S where you can get a stress fracture. Here, though, is a tendon. This is something that’s going to bother you, but with ice and Advil, you shouldn’t have any problems.”

He checked my blood pressure-120/78-and listened to my heart. He explained cardiomyopathy and where they’d hear problems if any existed. “Just to be totally sure, I want to run an EKG. I don’t hear anything but I don’t want to take any chances.”

The guy came in and stuck glue patches all over me. I was soon told that I was in perfect health and was cleared to do whatever I want.

In the hallway I could hear my doctor talking with the EKG nurse.
“So he’s cleared to do the triathlon?” the nurse asked.
“He’s cleared to do whatever he wants. He’s the father of two little boys. He wants to be around.”

I thought about what that meant. Usually with men, by the time you get to the doctor, it’s because they’re telling you that you need to make the changes or you’re going to die. I was mildly pleased with myself for doing it this way.

They signed me up for some blood tests. I was cleared for everything.

It was soon time to ship the bicycle, the wetsuit, and everything I would need. As Jayson’s christening was taking place later, the kids would be staying with Natalie. I would fly back with Nannette, heading back to Chicago them the following Friday. I had used so much vacation time that I couldn’t spare four days between. If for some reason some of this stuff didn’t arrive, I couldn’t race. With a crazed gleam in my eye I explained this importance to frightened UPS workers and bicycle shop employees.

In the week before the race, I got in one more bike ride, setting a personal best of averaging 24 miles an hour on the bicycle. I was trying out all kinds of energy gels, because they’d be quick carbohydrates that I could use on the bike. Most of them tasted like sweet toothpaste for little kids-the kinds that come in fruit flavors that adults find repulsive. I settled on Gu’s Chocolate Outrage, and went with Clif Shot’s Cola Buzzzz for the pre-race, getting myself into an adrenaline-fueled frenzy by the time it was time to take off. Every other flavor was hideous, like eating a scratch-and-sniff sticker.

In the last week, things started disappearing. All of my training gear was in a box en route to Chicago. I used backup gear when I could and kept my running shoes with me; that was the one thing that I absolutely could not replace. I found some speed laces at the last minute-bungee cords for my shoes that would let me put them on like loafers rather than try to tie the laces while I was shaking. I had some sniffles, but a quick shot of Nyquil fixed that. When breathing was a little difficult nose spray cleared that right up. I told people I was shooting for between 3 ½ and four hours. Anything less I’d be ecstatic. Anything more I’d be happy I finished, but disappointed overall because I had trained so hard and thought I could do better. One hour in the swim, and hour and a half on the bike, and an hour on the run, and I’d be there.

The morning I was flying out, I did one last swim, because I couldn’t do that in Chicago. I felt strong. My new goggles would be there. My old ones had been dried out by the chlorine and had started to leak; somehow they didn’t do this on Friday.

I had a nice lunch with my coworkers and headed out early at one o’clock. When I got home, we took care of the zillion little things that needed to be taken care of before we left for a trip. We packed up the children and got ready to head out.

Nannette called. Another friend of hers agreed to drive her to the airport, so she would meet us at the gate. This fellow had said some ugly things about me and as was my habit, I was ready to lash back, but Ken said that would be ill advised. “Nannette can take care of herself,” he said, “and you aren’t in high school anymore. Focus on your race and if you need a rival, why not make it a triathlete instead of a weightlifter?”

“I’m meaner and sneakier than he is,” I replied.

“How do you know?” he mailed back.

“Because these days I’m meaner and sneakier than anything, and I’m not scared of anything with less than four legs.”

“This is counterproductive. I’m saying it for the last time-Stop. This. Now.”

I was thinking about that as this man had, I would find out later, gotten lost on the way to the airport in a city of less than two million people. They were calling Nannette’s name over the loudspeakers. Nat was convinced they were giving away her seat. I didn’t have a cell phone so I had no idea what was going on. If she missed this flight there wasn’t another one out of Las Vegas to Chicago that night. There was a run at eight in the morning. The train downtown was at 11. The expo was at three. Friday was tight as a snare drum, and what could I slide if I had to pick her up? Was I driving downtown? She’d mentioned the train; I could get schedules.

All of the boarding groups had been called. We were some of about a dozen people left when she appeared. She was shaking her head. “He got lost.”

We were all aboard.


We had a fast and uneventful flight; youngest son Jayson chose to go crazy for only 20 minutes of a three-and-a-half hour flight. We got all of our stuff in record time. We went outside to wait for a shuttle bus.

We had chosen Dollar Rent-A-Car to provide us with an SUV that could tote my kids and my gear around for the weekend. We waited 20 minutes for a shuttle bus that was only supposed to take 15. Everyone was exhausted. The other company’s buses would come by, see us still standing there, and practically taunt us with “Cars Available” signs. I wound up getting on the phone with Travelocity, who at that hour was transferring me to overseas. I could tell because every time I shouted at him “I have two little kids crying, we’re tired, there’s street sweepers passing me by, and I need a car RIGHT NOW” and he responded with, “Oh, my goodness”, like someone trained to speak English last week, instead of “I’ll take care of it right away as fast as you’re talking” like an American customer service rep who got a call like this every five minutes and had three more waiting on hold.

Twenty minutes later, the rental bus showed up, and it would take us another two hours to get our car. During this time another customer left the line after waiting nearly as long as us, Jarren redecorated the brochure rack, Jayson screamed bloody murder, Nannette looked nearly comatose despite two cups of coffee, and Nat and I tried to make our way through it. We got home so late that Nannette stayed with us that night instead of heading out to Ken’s.

Nat woke me up at 7:30. I got some clothes ready and was ready to start running at 8, but I wasn’t going to wake anybody up. I had a few sniffles but nothing life-ending. I took a Claritin and got my running gear on.

I called Ken at eight, knowing that he didn’t have the same night as us-I’d called him relatively early in the process. I figured it would be best to get my bicycle in my possession as soon as possible. Nannette had awakened; she got breakfast while we went there and they had it. I looked bemused that they had stuck their company sticker to the main tube. They’d attached two tires and tuned it up, blowing up the tires as well. This didn’t seem to merit an ad for themselves. Ken and I tied the bike to the back and were on our way.

I had originally planned to do my last training run at West Field, where I’d taken jogging in high school PhysEd and actually got named Student of the Month for two years because I put in more effort than the track stars to get results that were better than someone my size could have accomplished. I wanted it to be obvious back then that you couldn’t beat me easy. The teachers saw it, and even though I never considered myself a runner, I recognized now that it was that sort of stubbornness that pushed me toward this sport, and I felt that training over there was a small way to acknowledge it.

I also knew that four laps was a mile, the cinders were better than concrete, and the nostalgia alone could push me to sprint, just like the old days, when I was going crazy over Nat and consuming my time with everything but what I was supposed to be doing-studying and getting into a better college. I could come up with some wild ideas on the run, living in my own head. I was still crazy about her. She drove me insane for different reasons nowadays, but the journey between those cinders saw me a little balder, a little heavier, and a lot more mature. It would be damn near magic to get back there.

Alas, there wasn’t time. I would up running twelve blocks down Lawn Avenue, coming back in sweating profusely. The air felt like soup. I didn’t run outside in Vegas because of the heat, but it had rained the night before and the air was thick with morning dew and puddles. I was chugging pretty hard, spitting out phlegm, but I didn’t feel that lousy. I checked my legs, nothing was wrong, the foot stayed, my right knee was a little tight, but I figured that to be the humidity rather than injury. There were no sidewalks, but plenty of teardowns. I was hoping to not be run down by anyone I knew.

I sprinted back into the house and explained how thick the air was, and clearly I needed a shower right that instant if we were going to catch the train. I changed like lightning, said goodbye to Natalie, and we were off.

I was focused. We were meeting my father for lunch, and he probably hadn’t seen Ken for a year or two. He’d never met Nannette. Ken and Nannette had never met until that morning. I was wondering how in the hell I could keep all the inside jokes straight. I’d been talking to the two of them about everything I’ve been doing for six months.

We jumped in the car and I was so focused, I forgot to adjust the mirrors, and forgot that I’d told Ken that he should park in the driveway, which he’d done, right behind me. I backed right into him and knocked his front license plate off. His car appeared to have only cosmetic damage. I’d clearly rubbed some paint off of the Jeep. I couldn’t apologize fast enough, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and then I put it out of my head too brusquely. Thankfully there was minimal damage.

We parked semi-legally and grabbed Starbucks before catching the train. We walked to my father’s new office and then ate at Millennium Park’s Grill. From there, it was the Art Institute.

There’s always something there that grabs me and shuts me up, but this time, it was the details in faces of a chariot race, an exhibit consisting of nothing but hard candies that visitors were encouraged to take by an artist who claimed “he wanted to be remembered and say to the world that he existed.” He died in 1996; I asked a docent if the people taking the candies were OK, “because it’s not like he’s coming back to put in any more.” She replied “we fill ‘em up again when it gets low.” I thought that was an interesting approach to permanence. An eternal flame of sugar. Intriguing.

Significantly more relaxed, we headed down to the Hilton and Towers for the Race Expo. Every triathlon company involved with the race would be there. It was the sport’s largest gathering on the mainland; Kona is bigger because it’s the birthplace of the sport. They sold everything from the gel packs that I needed to Nissans. It took up two massive conference rooms.

Registering was like Comdex. You walked up to a laptop computer, of which there were about 20, and entered your last name. That spat back a bib number-the number that would be attached to your bike, your bike helmet, your shirt, your swim cap, and scrawled on the back of your leg. Mine was 7269. Nannette has a thing about the number 9; so this was good news. You see, seven and two is 9, and there’s another nine right there, and that six is just a nine that’s upside down, and you have three nines and that totals 27 and THAT adds up to nine and three squared is ALSO nine, and…She had me doing this in San Diego. Eventually you turn into Rain Man, and I was most of the way there.

Now I was starting to tighten up. The bodies around me all looked like Brad Pitt, and while I’m skinnier than I was I’m still not where I want to be. I kept telling myself, “Desert tough. You trained harder. You think meaner. No one’s going to stop you from crossing that line. NONE of these people can keep up with you; you’re gonna stomp ‘em from the neck up, nobody wants this worse than you…” over and over, until hopefully I’d believe it. It wasn’t really working. It got real for me in a hurry when I saw all these people. Lots of them knew each other. But this sport came down to what I could do, not anybody else.

I walked back to race registration as Nannette and Ken searched for food. We’d eaten a few hours earlier, and lightly at that. They found some Jelly Belly Sport Beans, which were just what they sounded like. It reminded me of the Snickers Detour Bar, or if somebody sold smokable sticks designed to prevent you from smoking. I got in line for T-shirts.

The logo was big and red and had the date on it. On the back, there was a large sponsor ad – Peak Bar. I’d never eaten these until about ten minutes before, and if you ate paste as a child and thought it tasted like raspberries, not only were you psychotic, but it tasted like this. I moved further down the line to get more of my stuff.

I saw that they had shirts with different sponsors on them. I wound up trading in Peak Bar for Gatorade, because I figured it was good luck to show allegiance to a product I actually used. I’ve explained to Nannette that I’m like a 14-year-old girl when it comes to race fashion. The hats were coordinated with the shoes, which matched the shirt and the triathlon shorts…You’re wondering how I ever had time to train and think about this crap, so let’s just move on.

When I got to the end, they had a wave start schedule. I was in wave 48 out of 50, which meant that I would have to wait for 47 sets of 150 racers to get started before I could. My start time was at 9:44. My stuff had to be loaded in by 6. I knew that I would be a basket case if I had to stand and watch the race for three hours before I could do it myself; we decided that the best way to go would be to go to my sister’s place in Forest Park to wait it out and then Julie would join us for the ride in. I got body marked in some of the largest writing I’ve ever seen. The number 7269 took up my whole calf.

Nannette bought a new heart rate monitor and the guy threw in a box of peach-flavored gels, which she happily turned over to me. Carbs aren’t welcome under her new regimen. I had next to no intention of using these, because the rules for race day were clear: train how you race, race how you train. I bought my Chocolate Outrage and Cola Buzzzz at different booths.

At the Gu booth, they were selling a little flask that looked like a travel shampoo bottle. It had a nozzle on the top like a water bottle. What you could do, apparently, is fill this with the little foil gel packs, which are about the size of two ketchup packets. Add a little water and it had Velcro on one side, so you didn’t litter the packs and it stayed with you. Brilliant! I bought one. I’d never used gel packs in a race-in a sprint race it’s not as important-so this seemed smart.

We stayed for a course talk at 6:30. This is where they tell you all of the rules, things you need to look out for, where you need to be, and what to expect. For instance, in this race, on the bicycle, there would be passing on the right, ride on the left. There were two lanes but motorcycles would take one up. The pavement got a little rough after Irving Park Road to the turnaround at Foster on both sides. Wetsuits would likely be allowed, as the water temperature was 72 degrees. You were not allowed to throw water bottles on Lake Shore Drive, and there were no aid stations for water.

We headed up Michigan Avenue to Heaven on Seven for gumbo and other Cajun delicacies. Two days later, Hurricane Katrina would pound New Orleans. I’d visited once and couldn’t even get my head around what had happened. After that, it was back down Dearborn to the train and to get some sleep.

Saturday was a great deal more flexible. My goal was to not do anything that resembled physical activity, and I think it was unfortunate that I felt eating qualified. I had no appetite, so I drank lots of water. I got my bike shoes ready with speed laces. In a further example of not messing with the mojo, I had the same meal that I had in San Diego; a tuna appetizer and swordfish. We walked through Oakbrook for a few minutes and headed home.

It was that night that Natalie finally got it through my thick, shaven skull that she actually wanted to be a part of this-to help out. In retrospect, I was stupid. She’d been a few dollar signs away from riding on a semi-pro cycling team, had done track and swimming in high school, and knew what I was trying to put together. I was clearly too proud or too isolated to seek out her help. We both kind of arrived at that conclusion late that night. She helped me pack and said she was hoping she could help me. She wasn’t doing child wrangling tomorrow, I thought, “Who cares if we have five in the truck. She’s my wife and my best friend. She’s going to help me finish this race.” At that moment, I felt a great deal better about what I was doing. We got everything loaded in. She told me she was so proud of me for doing this, and for the first time I was smart enough to believe it. I felt like a fool.

We would get to transition at 4:15 the next day. I was ready to go.


I woke up with tightness in the middle of my chest, like a squeezing. I couldn’t breathe deeply. I could breathe in about halfway, and then I would get a sharp pain all through my chest that wouldn’t recede for anything. Nerves, I thought. Just chill out and get ready.

I had my non-race clothes ready by the bed, featuring the wisdom of Charles Barkley-“You can go around them or you can go through them.” Even though he’s been quoted as saying that endurance people aren’t real athletes, I did like the sentiment in the shirt. And anyone called “The Round Mound of Rebound” who’s gotten even rounder since has to have some kind of guts for saying that.

Ken and Nannette were by shortly. I was still having trouble breathing. I tried stretching, drinking some water, touching my toes. Nothing. I tried not to think about it, because if it was nerves, it certainly wasn’t going to go away now if I thought about it some more. We hopped in the truck. I turned the key, and Cleavon Little from “Blazing Saddles” comes on and shouts, “All right, here we go! Hold you ears, folks, it’s Showtime!”

Ken and Nannette laughed. “You planned that, didn’t you?” she asked.

“Of course. What else do you think I did at work on Friday?”

The CD starts playing “Right Now” by Van Halen. I’m thinking of that night with Brian, trying to get him to understand that it’s worth taking a chance on something impossible because it just might work. I remember that I was sitting there doped up on anesthetic with blood running out of my mouth after dental surgery because it was Important. Now, some more friends are sitting in a car with me in the middle of the night because I want to chase down some crazy dream. Ken knows the story of the song and laughs quietly. Nannette falls asleep. Nat looks ahead.

We have to wait for a train.

After a surprisingly easy trip on the Eisenhower, we get to Lake Shore Drive off of Randolph. There’s a giant tent for volunteer check in, and there’s no traffic on the drive. I decide to stop the car, put the hazard lights on, and we’ll unload right there. The transition area is just at the bottom of the hill.

I say that I’ll go park the car and come back and meet them. I’m driving, so this should work out perfect, and there’s virtually no one else there. It ought to be easy, except for the fact that I can’t get off of the Drive at the turn at Randolph because the ramp, which leads straight down to the bicycle transition, is closed. I pull up to Navy Pier and start turning around on the lower Drive. I finally get close to Prudential Plaza, which I figure is close enough for parking, and park the truck. I jog back in my sandals to where they’re waiting.

By now a couple hundred more people have shown up, and it’s quickly agreed that leaving my stuff with the rest of the people who can’t get into the transition area because they don’t have my assortment of admittance bracelets was A Bad Idea. I walk all my stuff in, leaving my water bottles with the crew inside of the bag.

The transition area consists of pipe sawhorses for bicycles, and here the space is huge. 7600 bicycles will need to be parked here within the next two hours. There are at least 40 aisles with giant signs reading WAVE with a huge number below it. I had to find the number 48 in ¾ darkness; the Chicago Park District does not light their parks for this scenario.

I found a blank bike rack next to 46, 47, and 49. It stood to reason, to me, that this would be it. I just wished that I could find a sign that indicated that, or someone who could tell me yes or no. Another guy near me was having the same problem. We hadn’t been given a map of the transition area; we just followed the signs. In the dark. I saw one guy with a headlamp on his head like a coal miner; he seemed like the smartest one so far.

The guy who was as confused as I was had grabbed a race volunteer, who had a plastic schedule around his neck. He asked him where 44 was. I could see the sign from where he was standing, but it was early and my chest was still tight. I asked him for 48 and the volunteer seemed just as confused as I was. We walked further north about 200 feet, and there it was. I was close to the bike in-out portion but was about 200 yards away from where I would need to run in and out on the swim and run. I found a bend in the fence and put my stuff on the rack.

There are actually chapters in books on how to set up a transition area. You want to do it so that everything you need is arranged just so, like a Japanese traditional breakfast is served or how an artist sets up the paints on an easel. I like to have a huge beach towel mark off my space. Otherwise another bike gets too close and my space disappears. My bicycle goes on the left of the beach towel. My bicycle shoes go on the edge of the towel next to the tire of the bicycle, with the socks, unrolled, in the right shoe. My running shoes go in front of the bicycle shoes. My hat goes next to the running shoes. My sunglasses and gloves go inside my helmet, which is on the right handlebar of my bike. The water bottles go in their cages; the gears of the bicycle are set to the third gear on the second set, which gets me moving without crushing my legs but not spinning and not going anywhere on a flat surface. My spare water bottle, which I like having filled with Gatorade to take a quick sip when I get off the bike, sits between the shoes. And today, my Gu Energy Gel flask is going on the bike too. I don’t have it with me, but we’re going to fill it up at my sister’s and put it back on when we get back at 8:30…


I won’t be able to get in here, I realized. The water bottles that I planned to fill half with ice and half with water at Julie’s and put in the bike later, I can’t. Transition will be closed. Unless I plan on tucking these items into my wetsuit, they won’t be there for me after the swim.

I saw that they were handing out gallons of water up towards the top of the hill. I figure they’ll have them by the entrances. I walked to the one closest to me and two different people point toward the center. I grabbed a gallon of water and go to find the others, in the dark, somewhere down towards the bottom but I’m not sure where. I heard Natalie yell out my name.

“We have a problem,” I said. “I have to fill up the bottles and gels here or I won’t be able to get back in to mount them up by the time we get back.”

Natalie filled up the water bottles, including the one I was going to use for Gatorade, with water while I filled up the gel flask. My chest continued to feel way too tight. I could only breathe in halfway. This wasn’t getting better, but nothing had happened to change anything, so, yeah, nerves.

I handed them my race clothes and my backup goggles. I took the bag with to leave at the top of my transition towel so that they wouldn’t have to carry it for when we took everything out of transition later in the day. I had the flask and the bottles, got them loaded in, and left the bag.

When I met up with them again, I asked Nat, “Did I give you my new goggles?”

“No, just these.” The old ones that leaked. I started to head back, when Nat asked, “You’re going to use a pair of brand-new goggles that you’ve never tried in the water in the biggest race of your life?” She was right. “Tighten these up and you should be fine.”

We headed over to check out the swim start. The first fragments of the sun were starting to appear past the boats in the harbor. We walked past the swim finish first. I saw that I would have to run on a sidewalk, one of those old-time gravelly sidewalks from the 50s, for about 450 yards to get back to my bicycle. I wondered if I should leave my sandals by the fence to make the run faster. Nat and Nannette felt that the odds were better that, with wet feet, I would slip. I was worried about cuts from the gravel, even though I’d walked on the gravel at my house and back and forth to the mailbox over 120-degree plus pavement practicing for this exact trick. I agreed with them that it was too risky.

At the swim finish, there was a metal bar across the front of some steps coming out of the water under a giant red arch that read, “Swim finish.” Then we started walking. And walking. And walking some more. I remember thinking, “If I didn’t know that I’ve swam this distance for weeks now, I’d think this was a long damn walk.”

We finally got over to the swim start, where there was the same setup with the steps as at the finish. Some people were already gathering up, setting up picnic blankets. I tried some more to stretch out and shake off the butterflies, and some of the pain seemed to diminish a little. I walked to the shore and tried to look back at where I would be swimming. First, I saw that there was a bit of a curve in the lake, and everybody would try to head for the wall after they passed the start, but that might not be a good idea, because you still had to go through one orange buoy on the right. The cool thing is that I was never that far from shore. Once we were done, we made our way back to the truck and drove to Julie’s.

After getting lost (I didn’t get the streets right and we drove around aimlessly for a bit) we found Julie’s. I ate some cream of rice cereal that Nannette graciously provided me. Then, it was time to get ready.

I saw there was a Tanita body-fat measurement scale, so I figured I’d find out where I was pre-race. I’d already asked my parents to borrow theirs for after the race; Ken’s challenge donation was riding on that number. I came in at 232, for a total loss of 68 pounds. If I lost two pounds during the race, entirely possible with the calories expended, it would be an even 70.

I put on some BodyGlide everywhere on my body where I could chafe or get saddle sores. It’s like a deodorant stick that’s got this greasy feeling. I also use it on my arms and legs so that my wetsuit doesn’t stick to me when I’m trying to take it off. I threw on my bicycle shorts, which I’d wear under my wetsuit. They had a little skull and crossbones with a kerchief on them and a small pad so that my ass wouldn’t go numb after sitting on a bicycle for nearly two hours. Then it was a bright yellow Dri-Fit shirt, because that’s the color I told Jarren I’d be wearing. More BodyGlide on, of all things, my nipples, which chafed last time and hurt worse than my legs. Then it was back into my sandals and wait. My shoes were on the lakefront. My wetsuit was in the truck. All I needed to do was get there.

We drove in. The race was underway already for several thousand participants. We parked in the Monroe Street Garage and followed the signs to the lakefront. Ken carried my wetsuit. Nat had my bag. Nannette had her own set of stuff. I’m walking with nothing and a grim expression on my face; my chest isn’t getting any better, but it’s not getting worse. I try to breathe in and there’s stabbing pain all through my chest. Nerves, I think. Just forget it.

We crossed over Lake Shore Drive and found a spot on the lawn near the swim start. I ask something that I’m afraid I already know the answer to:

“Did anybody bring any sunscreen?”

Nope. This could hurt. I look around a little to see if anyone near me has some that I could borrow, but there’s not. Might as well chance it, I think.

There are giant picket signs reading “WAVE” with a number below them. They’re on 37. That means about a half-hour before I’m up. I wait next to my bag, watching the elite athletes in the sprint zoom past behind us. We’re all sort of drinking it in. I’m taking as deep of breaths as I can, putting my arms over my head, twisting, anything to get my chest to loosen up. I told Ken, “Fuck three and a half, four hours. I just want to finish this thing.”

Natalie had the best idea. After holding onto my shoulders and just letting us smile and wink at each other, she asked, “Can you see if Nannette can stretch you out?” She did, drawing amazement out of the other three. We do this most Saturdays following my workout, but they’ve never seen my heel touch the center of my lower back, or my arms pinned behind me like Woody in the “Toy Story” movies. I was able to take some deep breaths and even though it hurts, it felt like it was lifting. She spent several minutes trying to fix a knot in my right shoulder. The others wince a little as she’s using elbows, twisting it, anything to get this to loosen up. It was a concern for both of us; it meant I could have a harder time on the swim or worse, cramp up if it wasn’t loosened up. It finally gave a little. I apologized for already being slathered in BodyGlide, which made my whole body as slick as if I’d used a ton of suntan oil.

I looked at my watch. It was 9:21-time to walk down to the start. I got my wetsuit on. Julie said she had to get a picture; I don’t zip up the back since the heat would boil me alive if I stood in that for 20 minutes. I get my swim cap on; neon pink with my number and “Accenture Chicago Triathlon” and a giant Speedo logo. Nannette points out that I’m smaller in my wetsuit than I was in San Diego.

The WAVE 48 sign goes up. I shake my head to both sides. “Let’s do it.” I high-five Nannette, hug Julie, nod to Ken and give a hug and kiss to Natalie. “See you in a bit.” I puff out my cheeks and try to take a deep breath. Nannette sings out “Juuust breathe” –that awful Faith Hill song that I really don’t want as my pre-race thought. I start laughing.

I pass by a bunch of spectators and get into the cattle gates. There were two groups in front of me and one in the water. I get a cup of water and sip it and get my goggles placed on my forehead. Everyone’s standing around smiling. There were people a lot larger than me, taller than me, every body shape you can imagine, but they’re all big. The next wave gets in.

I started my watch, because it has to go under the sleeve of my wetsuit. I rolled down the sleeve and listened to the announcer with the megaphone count down until the next wave took off. I zipped up the back of my wetsuit, taking care not to get my shirt caught in the zipper. I remember to do the Velcro closure at the back of the neck; I forgot that at Lake Las Vegas and let in a couple gallons of ice water before I realized what I did.

Our wave is on deck, getting in the water in two minutes. I try breathing. It’s better, but not great. The announcer starts. “Wave 48, in the pink hats, Male Clydesdales, 30-39. You know guys, those pink swim caps were chosen on purpose. We know it takes some real men to pull that look off. How many first-time triathletes?”

Others cheer. “All right, it’s time. Everybody in the water.”

We lowered ourselves down the steps and hung on to the metal bar going across them, powering ourselves into the water. My chest is still hurting. I stick my face in the water to get it ready. The water feels only slightly cooler than the pool. I move to the back of the pack and tread water.

“Ten…nine…eight…seven…six…five…four…three…two…one.” The horn goes off.

It’s like someone’s tossed a side of beef to piranhas. The water starts churning. I move my arms a little, waiting for the space to clear up in front of me. It does a little, so I flatten out and start kicking. I get my face in and start to establish my normal swim stroke: right, left, right, breathe out left, left, turn head, breathe in right, right, repeat.

There’s a problem.

I can’t do the sequence without my chest hurting. I can get through about half of it and then I hurt, so I pull my face out of the water and paddle with my arms. I keep kicking my feet in long, broad strokes, so that I can get the propulsion. But my chest can’t take the attempts at breathing my normal swim stroke.

I’m starting to write off nerves, because I’m in the water, and the stronger swimmers have pulled away. It shouldn’t make much of a difference because it’s the same as any other swim. Darker thoughts start entering my head, thoughts like “bronchitis” and “pneumonia” and “asthma attack.” But the doctor would have caught that! Right? Try it again:

Right, left, right, breathe out left, left, turn head, breathe in right, right, repeat.

Owww. This isn’t working. The other swimmers are pulling away, there are other waves behind me, and I’m starting to come to a very bad realization. It’s the biggest race of my life, and I can’t breathe.

I try again. This time I get a good look at what’s under us: underwater shrubbery covering up huge limestone rocks. I see at least four timing anklets, and without those the racer gets disqualified. Probably too much slack and it got tangled up with somebody’s fingers. Let’s try again.

I’m gritting my teeth and nearly crying now. Others around me are giving up. I saw a guy climb the ladder out after a very short distance, maybe 250 yards total. Another woman was hanging off the edge of a lifeguard’s kayak. I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere, and I certainly don’t want to dog-paddle around Lake Michigan. I try to swim some more.

Every time I breathed out, I grunted. I’m sure the people around me were convinced I was in real trouble. I felt like I was jogging in place. It felt like the tendrils of the shrubs underwater, which I could see perfectly, would grab me at any second, even though they were about five feet away. I was wondering if I was getting lightheaded.

The pain got worse. Now I could only breathe in about a third. I was going “unnhh” every time I breathed in. I got to the first buoy and started thinking.

This isn’t working. If this is nerves, you should be beating it by now. There’s pro and relay waves coming up behind you; you’re gonna get hit. This can’t work. You haven’t even made the turnaround yet, which is five times as far, and you can’t breathe. There’s a lifeguard. Maybe they have one of those inhaler things on the boat; you don’t have asthma but it might help, maybe if you stopped for a bit, you could breathe. Hey, you might be sick, you couldn’t go, there’s no disgrace in that. Just bad luck. Happens to everybody.

The turnaround came, and I got a really good look at how far I was expected to swim. It might as well have been an ocean. By now the later waves were pummeling me as I came around the buoy; arms and legs hit me pretty hard, but I didn’t get hit in the head. I got back in my stroke to get around the buoy.

The red booth that looked so far away was actually the swim start. By the time I got back to there I still had an insanely long way to go. I had adjusted to my breathing and got into a bit of a rhythm; face up for two strokes, normal for three. I was still grunting and unable to get enough air.

When I got closer to the swim start I saw everybody, and I saw Nat holding Jarren. My face was out of the water enough that they could recognize me, and they all cheered and waved and screamed. It felt good that somebody saw me. I’d been looking right at the lifeguards to see if they saw anything in my face that made them concerned, like if I was chalk-white or in more trouble than your average swimmer.

I made my way past the swim start in a little better rhythm, and I started thinking, I could get out here. Hit those steps and get some help. Get checked out by a doctor. Something is wrong. It’s not nerves now. Something is the matter. This could get worse and you could pass out.

I looked at the lifeguard boat. Two swimmers were hanging on to the side.

I heard Nannette shout, “You’re doing fine! Keep going!”

I looked back over. Everyone was walking along. I could see Ken further up the hill carrying the blue bag. I could hear my dad shouting, “Pace yourself!” But I could see and hear Nannette the easiest, walking out about five feet in front of me right along the shoreline.

I looked over and mouthed the words, “I can’t breathe,” and shook my head.

“C’mon, Jim, breathe! Just take it easy, you’re doing fine! Short breaths!”

And then it hit me. For the first time since I’d gotten wet, I stopped feeling scared and started getting angry. I didn’t train this hard, lose this weight, fly out my trainer and my family to stop here. This isn’t how it’s supposed to end. I’m not going to spend another year getting ready and wondering if I could do it. It was going to be TODAY. I glanced left, gritted my teeth, breathed until it hurt, and put my face down. I made it through my normal stroke. Every time I brought my face up, I could hear her shouting encouragement. She wasn’t going to let me stop. Now I wasn’t going to let me stop either.

I learned that if I breathed OUT as hard as I could, it hurt, but then I could inhale more before it started hurting. I started blowing air out through my nose and mouth on the left and inhaling until I couldn’t stand it on the right. I started catching up to some other swimmers in pink caps-I know that I passed one. And the buoys got closer and ultimately I realized that I was going to make it out of the water.

I started worrying about what I had left for the bike. The only swim that I could remember that was this draining was Lake Las Vegas, and I had nothing left then. Chicago is flat, I told myself. You’ll be fine.

I got to the steps. Some large volunteers helped pull me out. I was careful not to bang my feet on the bottom step; they’d talked about that at the course talk. I could hear a lot of shouting, but I wasn’t about to look back.

I started jogging slowly along the mats. Breathing was nearly impossible, but I knew if I could shove out kind of quickly on the bike, I could coast for a bit, take it nice and easy on the gears, and just get a pace going. As I was jogging, it felt like I was hyperventilating I was breathing so short. I just told myself to breathe quickly. I unzipped my wetsuit, pulled my arms out of the sleeves, and kept jogging back towards transition. It was then that I got a look at my watch.

Forty-six minutes.

Hot damn! I thought I’d been out there for over an hour! This meant that my “hour for swim, hour and a half for the bike, an hour for the run” plan could still be held intact if I could get moving in the transition area. I jogged a little quicker. There were small rocks on the path. My wetsuit was too big, so it would have fallen down to my ankles if I hadn’t held on to the front of it. I looked on with envy at some others who could run faster than I could because they didn’t have to worry about the suit falling off.

I finally got over to my bike at stepped out of my wetsuit. I had walked a little bit to get some of the breathing back. I threw on my socks and shoes, gloves, sunglasses, and helmet, and jogged my bike over to the transition. At the mount/dismount line, I jumped on.

The first part of the course was to pedal up the Randolph Street on ramp to Lake Shore Drive. I used the breathing that I learned on the swim; quick, out through the mouth, in through the nose. I got out on Lake Shore Drive and saw the rows of cars lined up along the two outside lanes. This ride would be conducted in eighty-degree weather amid car exhaust fumes, and I felt like I was ready for it. It didn’t help that I couldn’t breathe like normal, but I’d come to accept that as being the hand I was dealt that day.

I passed Pearson Avenue and the John Hancock building and I figured I’d give myself a quick sugar rush so that I could crank the cadence pretty early and shake out any trouble from the swim. I grabbed the Gu flask, opened the nozzle with my teeth, and squeezed some in. With being in the morning heat on my handlebars, it was like mainlining chocolate syrup. I closed the nozzle and kept riding.

All of Gu’s instructions demand that you take the product with water. I reached down for my front water bottle. It was already opened. I squeezed a mouthful and gulped it down. I spun my pedals quick a couple times and went to put the bottle back. It went into the left side of the cage…

…and fell out.

Fuck. Now I was severely pissed, feeling snakebit. That could be BIG trouble. It’s hot and I just cut my race water supply in half. That bottle was supposed to last me for twelve miles. I couldn’t hang onto it for a little more than two. Even if I was thirsty right now I couldn’t go to the other water bottle, because that would mean I wouldn’t have any for later on in the bike, when I would need it. At the same time, I had to make sure that I didn’t dehydrate. There were no aid stations on the bike and even in a best-case scenario I would still be riding for another hour and a half. I shook my head, amazed that I could be so stupid. I’d worried about doing that. I’d practiced doing that. Why didn’t I take the time to do it right?

I tried to sit up a little straighter on the bike, in case I needed to ease up on my back at some point later. I found out that if I did that, my chest hurt even more and breathing got really painful. This meant that I would have to ride with more weight on my hands than I would prefer, and that could hurt me later. Thank God she had me lift all those weights, I thought. My upper body wasn’t sore after the swim, except maybe a little bit in my shoulders.

I looked down at my leg. I saw lots of brown speckles on it, which I thought was kind of weird. I thought that it was grass clippings that got stuck to the BodyGlide when I was lying on my stomach getting stretched out.

Then I noticed they were darker. I didn’t see any on my other leg. I was at Fullerton Avenue when I finally figured it out. The Gu flask wasn’t closed all the way, all but that last press that seals the top ring (think of a bottle of dawn) and was leaking. I saw a couple drops flit out in just a few seconds. I ripped it out of its holder and closed it tightly, slamming it back.

Now what? I thought. I assessed the damage. It look like I’d lost two ounces of Gu, which left me plenty because I’d packed four and trained with two. No problem. My left handlebar, my left shoe, the left leg of my cycle shorts, my left glove all looked like they’d be part of a hot fudge sundae. I didn’t see anything in the gear assemblies, and right now I’m in third gear and that’s not coming down, so even if it’s stuck I won’t notice because I won’t be changing it. The gears are on the right side of the bike, so they probably weren’t messed up too bad.

I kept pedaling. There were some decent hills as I went up the overpasses, but nothing that I had to get up out of my seat for. I looked at my cycle clock and saw that it said I had been riding for nearly two hours. I knew this wasn’t true; I hadn’t cleared the timer and odometer when I got the bike to transition, so all that time walking it was putting time on the clock. I cleared the clock so that I could get some true speed numbers if I needed them.

I saw the sign for Wilson Avenue, which I remembered was close to Foster in terms of exits on Lake Shore Drive. I didn’t have much further before the turnaround, and sooner than I could realize, I was there. I unclipped my left foot and coasted through; that way if I had to stop, I could hold myself up on one foot. I mashed the pedals and got moving back towards downtown.

Several people had no idea what the rules were. They wouldn’t let you pass, even though the rule was if you get even with their front wheel, they have to let you go. If you can’t complete the pass in three seconds, you don’t get to pass. Like they said in the course talk, you ride left and pass right. Lots of people didn’t do that. Some people rode in the motorcycle lane, or right in the middle. And then there was Team in Training.

Team in Training is a brilliant idea. It raises money for leukemia and challenges people to do difficult events, and is the world’s largest endurance sports training program. The deal is, they pay your entry fee and your travel accommodations, and you raise the minimum amount of money in return. It doesn’t matter how you do in the race, just that you do it, and for many of these people it’s their first endurance sports experience.

The problem is, as a result of that second part, elite athletes can’t stand them, referring to them as “The Purple Menace” (the colors of their shirts) I’d read about it and I thought that this was unfair. I mean, I had next to no race experience, how else would I learn? And how can you get mad at someone in a purple shirt with a picture of a three-year-old boy that says “Jack Bender: My Hero!” or others who had their jerseys signed with markers of all of their teammates? I was racing with a LIVESTRONG bracelet for my friend’s girlfriend, what was the difference?

The difference is their training didn’t include knowledge of the rules. I didn’t notice it as much in San Diego, but Lake Shore drive had people passing me on the inside left, or people who clearly weren’t in shape to do the race. I’m not elitist enough to say they got in my way, but if I rode at light speed and could identify all the novices by one color shirt, well, I guess that’s how you come up with a nickname like “The Purple Menace.” My training included books and articles and all kinds of things to make sure I didn’t make anyone angry or get hurt due to a breach of etiquette or safety. Theirs did not. I found this out as I tried to pass one of them and had to drop back because there was a third rider coming up on my right side, and I couldn’t complete the pass in three seconds because he wouldn’t allow it. I let the third guy go by and get comfortable, and then I saw to it that I never saw that particular purple-shirted rider again. It was a nice burst of speed and vengeance proved to be a nice change of pace from worrying about breathing.

I was starting to get kind of thirsty. I was already into the second water bottle, about halfway through, and I knew I was just going to have to gut it out. As I came back down from my second lap, a used gel pack got stuck to my front tire and wouldn’t come off. It just went tick, tick, tick on every revolution. What was I going to do-stop the bike? I shrugged it off. One more thing.

I killed off the last of the water with about ¾ of a lap to go, roughly five miles. I knew I could go that long, but it would be tricky. There were some clouds coming in, and I worried about what rain would do to the riders in front of me. I wasn’t as concerned about my bike, because with the big tires I could get through anything, but the people on tri and road bikes had tires that were as wide as my thumb. I had also started sniffling, which made me more convinced than ever that all this trouble breathing wasn’t nerves, it was me being sick.

Traffic was stopped to my right as two cars had bumped into each other. I was worried that the next sound that I was going to hear would be screeching tires, as someone caught in two lanes of gridlock would come tearing into our side because there weren’t many cyclists left out on the course, so who was using it?

Right around now is where the professional triathletes started getting themselves in the mix. They rode exclusively in the motorcycle lanes, most of them being followed by motorcycles with judges and cameras. I recognized Barb Lindquist’s name, on the back of her race suit, zooming by me on the bike. She’s competed in the Olympic Games in Sydney and Athens, has been the 1999 ITU National Champion, and was out here today kicking my ass clear over to Lincoln Park Zoo. That’s one of the cooler things about triathlon; even though they’re doing it much faster, they’re on the same course as you. I’ll never hit a home run at US Cellular Field. I’ll never shoot baskets at the United Center. But I could run into a professional athlete over Gatorade and bananas at the end of race picnic and say, “Wow, could you believe that run to transition?” and they’d nod and smile and say “Congratulations.”

I pulled into the right lane, following the arrows for “Sprint/Transition” and tore down the ramp, coasting and unbuckling my feet. Before I got there, I saw Julie at the edge, taking pictures. I jumped off the bike, crossed the BIKE IN mat, and staggered towards my spot. A lot of people were standing around, packing up stuff. I tried to remember that many of them had started much earlier in the day.

When I got to my spot, I saw that the jerk next to me had put his wetsuit on top of my running stuff. I threw it aside. His bike was also on top of my beach towel, unnecessarily crowding me. I didn’t have time to be upset. I changed my shoes, put my running hat on, and grabbed the spare water bottle. I drained it, like I’d been wandering the desert. I walked and jogged slowly toward the RUN OUT mat, seeing how my breathing would work out on the running. It was sort of there, but my legs felt really heavy.

As I crossed the mat, everyone was there just outside the transition area. Ken was several steps closer to me.

“How are you holding up?”
“I’m hurting,” I panted, “but I’m gonna finish.”

The others clapped and cheered. I was on my way.

I was running along the lakefront, on a grass path up above where I’d been swimming earlier. They had already taken down all of the swim equipment and that portion of the lake was empty. It was like it never happened. I jogged when I could, walked when I couldn’t, and looked at how far away the planetarium was. There were still people around, many of them with finisher’s medals, who were cheering as I went by, saying things like “Great effort!” and “Stay on it, you could take out a pro!” I started to get stomach cramps. I made sure that I would drink plenty the next chance I got and every one after that. I had to walk more than I wanted.

I made it down to the park, and got over towards the aquarium. There were lots of people cheering us on, many with picnic blankets. Several held signs saying “Go Daddy Go” and with people’s names. I smiled. I knew that I had a crowd of people waiting for me, and it was going to be great.

I hit the “PowerGel Zone,” where a gentleman noted my condition and said, in the manner of a sadistic drug pusher talking to a fifth-grader, “I got just the thing to pick you right up.” He offered me a Raspberry Cream PowerGel, which I knew was disgusting. Remembering the stomach cramps, I told him no thanks, but did he know where the next water station was? “About 200 feet ahead.” Bless him.

As I made my way down to Shedd Aquarium, a couple of pros passed by. Another woman running shook her head and said, “Unbelievable.” These guys had just done the same distance we did, and ran past as fast as we’d ever run in our whole lives. “Don’t you wish you could run like that?”
“Yeah, but if they don’t run like that, they don’t eat. I’ll keep the day job.”

I pushed myself to run up one more hill, and then told myself that I would run to the end of Solidarity Drive, the road that leads out to the Adler Planetarium. In the midst of it, I wound up meeting two other women.
“Good afternoon, ladies. I’m just going to pace right here if you don’t mind.”
“No problem. We’re doing a walk/run, that’s not going to kill us. You gonna be OK?”
“Sure.” We did this for the rest of the way up to the Planetarium. At that point they slowed down. A city bus unloaded in front of us, and an enormous woman got off, nearly taking out me and another runner. She had this look on her face that had quite a bit of disdain for this form of recreation.

The water station we hit no longer had any bottles, so they were handing out half full gallons. As I chugged mine down, a skinny gentleman strode next to me.
“Brutal day, huh?”
I nodded. “Still fighting. How about you?”
“I had two flat tires back on the bike, so this is taking like five hours.”
“Damn. I’ve had a chest cold and can’t breathe.”
“Wow. Want to push it some?”
“Yeah. Let’s run to the street.”

And that’s how we made it out of Solidarity Drive. We were walking and running to water stations, light posts, anything. After a bit, though, he said that “I’m going to try to push a little harder.” He pulled away. He got about 30 meters in front and started walking. I could see him doing so.

I looked down at my watch. It ticked down to 3:29:57. I took three seconds of walking to mourn my goal of 3:30.

Then I decided it was time to catch that guy.

I extended my stride, gritting my teeth as the tightness in my legs picked up. When I caught up to him, I started walking. He didn’t say anything, taking off again after a few seconds. We did this a couple more times; he’d take off like he was going to streak past the rest of the field, and then he’d walk, and as soon as I caught up to him I’d start walking. I was like a greyhound at the track who’d caught the rabbit.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, I got past McCormick Place and down to the south end turnaround, where a DJ was playing. A volunteer with a bullhorn was shouting.

“This is it! You have two miles to go! You don’t have to go any further south! You can head straight home!”

I drank some water and ran for two light posts, then three. I saw another guy in a race shirt that I played the same cat-and-mouse game with, trying to catch him. Up way far ahead this time I saw the gentleman I’d been talking to earlier; when I caught him this time, he shook his head and said, “Wow, nice work.” If I had anything left I would have passed him, but I couldn’t. I crossed the street at Burnham Harbor and came back towards the aquarium.

This time it was a downhill to get around it, and when I turned the corner, I saw a poster-perfect view of the whole skyline right out in front of me. I was stunned into walking. I looked at my watch. It said 4:01. Damn.

Well, you couldn’t breathe, and the transitions were huge, and what the hell, it was the first time. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You finished! That’s what’s important. No one will be upset with you for missing the goal by a minute or two.

I thought of Nat, and Jarren and Jayson, of Ken and Nannette and Mom and Dad and Julie and everyone who wished me luck. I was inside of a half-mile.

I looked at the skyline again-the same one I’d seen all those mornings in the swimming pool, every hour on that bike when I thought what it would feel like to get here. God, thank you for my life, I whispered. I jogged harder to get up the hill and had to walk some more. My legs were very tight at this point. I shuffled to the overpass, where a volunteer clapped his hands. “500 feet! Last turn!”

When I got out from the overpass, I knew how close I was. Julie and my mom were there taking pictures, everyone else was cheering. My legs were on fire, and all I could do was shuffle and grit my teeth.

That’s when Nannette jumped onto the course and ran alongside me. Now, she didn’t know it, but this move was illegal, as there’s a rule against outside help, but no one was going to mind. I found some way to pick up my stride just so I could stay with her and laughed. She ran to just before the fences at the gate.

The red banners.

The balloons.

But, most importantly, there was the last timing mat and the finish line.

I pumped my arms hard and tried to pick up my knees, finish in a sprint. I wasn’t going to have anything left after this-what was I saving it for? 100 feet. The loudspeaker announced, “Now coming in, James Lyden!” A crowd of onlookers cheered. 10 feet. In a full sprint, I put both fists at my side and screamed with everything I had, stepping on the mat and kicking my knees high, jumping in the air and punching with my right fist.

I ducked down for a second and caught myself. I walked over to a volunteer and told him, “Cut my leg.” Specifically, the timing chip that was under my sock. He did so. After that, another volunteer handed me a medal, about four inches square, which had the race logo and date and read, “FINISHER.”

I had a smile that wasn’t going away for anything. Finally, Ken and Julie started waving their cell phones at me. They read the following:

Subject: Athlete Alert
Your athlete, JAMES LYDEN finished the race at 03h 59m 27s

My eyes widened. I’d forgotten I’d started my watch early. I’d hit my target! I started laughing so hard that no sound came out and I started coughing. Nat handed me the Gatorade I’d had on ice since the morning.

I grabbed a banana and met everyone on the other side of the fence. I hugged everyone and did a high five with Jarren, who was in his stroller. Everyone took pictures.

Just as quickly, it was time to get moving. They’d announced that transition was being disassembled, so if I didn’t get back over there I could lose my stuff. That was about a mile away. Nat, Ken, Nannette and I headed that way; my parents got Jarren back home to Western Springs.

I walked over to Nannette.

“Thank you for saving my life.”
“What do you mean?”
“Back on the swim I was ready to quit. I couldn’t breathe. I was starting to panic. I saw other people getting out, I saw people grabbing the boats, and I still couldn’t breathe. But I heard you up there, and you weren’t going to let me stop, and I realized that I didn’t make you fly out here to watch me give up, and I forced myself to breathe. So again, thank you for saving my life.”
“This was awesome. So thank YOU for saving MY life.”

We both laughed. She bought me a lemonade smoothie and handed me an energy bar.

I was done, but this was only the beginning.

Following the race I stepped on a scale and discovered I weighed 230 pounds, having lost 2 during the event.

That night, at a party at Lalo’s with friends and family, I read the following:

Could I have your attention for just a second?

First off, I wanted to thank all of you for coming out this evening. As those of you who saw the race this morning could certainly attest, I'm not much of a swimmer, cyclist, or runner, but I do know how to talk. I assure you that this won't take four hours.

I wanted to take time out to recognize four people who helped me finish this race, because I couldn't ever have finished it if I hadn't started it in the first place.

The first person was the one who was completely encouraging from the very beginning, when I first started talking about triathlon nearly two and a half years ago. She's spent the last six months doing all of the stuff that I never had time for or energy to do because I was busy riding a bicycle, swimming back and forth, or running in a circle, all things that she's pretty good at herself. She's listened to me complain about sore legs and aching muscles while she was carrying our second child, sometimes while she was carrying our first child up the stairs as well. She's the one who found me a training race in San Diego and encouraged me to do it as scheduled, even though she was still in the hospital and it was two days after Jayson was born. As we welcomed a newborn home she listened patiently as I explained that leading up to the race would require me to work out mornings, lunchtime, and evenings. I want to say Thank you again to Natalie, for being there when I wasn't, and for loving me anyway. I love you, sweetie.

The second person I described to Ken in an E-mail after I first met her as "she seems to know what she's doing and she looks like she could throw me through a plate-glass window." And this was when I weighed three hundred pounds. When I told her what my goals were and that one of them included finishing an Olympic-distance triathlon in six months, she didn't even flinch. She took everything I thought I knew about nutrition and exercise and we threw it out and started from the bottom, and now I weigh less than I did when I was in college. She's sacrificed a ton of money, hours of her time, and the chance to work with significantly more attractive people to get me to this day and this moment. She started working Saturday mornings because of me. I'm related to some of you here and I don't think you'd get up at 5:30 on a Saturday morning to share in my company at that hour. When she volunteered to do that, she said that there was an allure to my goals that she found compelling, and I've spent hours of time since trying to live up to that ideal. I'm grateful beyond words for her assistance and support and thrilled to death that she could join us to meet you all and see this chapter. Ladies and gentlemen, my trainer, my friend, Nannette Johnstone.

Third, this whole idea of doing this right and training seriously started as a joke. I said that I was going to hire on so many people to help me that I'd need a Minister of Perspective so I wouldn't start throwing things because I was served the wrong type of green beans. I had a volunteer instantly, even if I didn't have any drive to actually do any training. We talked about it a little more and he cheerfully offered to send me life expectancy rates for people of my weight and age. He also would point out some of the inconsistencies in my training plan, like canceling the first day of swimming in order to digitize the mp3 files on my computer. But the very best part of his work was whatever stupid decision it was that I made the day before, such as bacon cheeseburgers and chocolate lasagna, I had to tell him about it. Between these three, I always had an answer to that nagging question, "Ahh, come on, who's gonna know?" And he knew everything, because whether he was at his desk at work, or in the south of France with his family, he followed what I was doing. He told everybody on E-mail that I was going to finish the race today if he had to carry me across the finish line himself. In a symbolic sense, he did. Ladies and gentlemen, The Genius, Ken Faikus.

The fourth person I need to thank is not here this evening, but she is here in spirit. Her name is Janet Jurevec, and she was Ken's girlfriend, who lost her battle to brain cancer on April 6, 2005. While things were looking pretty bad Ken challenged me that he would donate $3 for every pound that I lost between the day he made the challenge and today, to donate to a memorial for someone who Natalie and I had the pleasure of meeting and whose spirit was taken from all of us far too soon. I wore this bracelet today for her and for my mom, a cancer survivor for six years. I'm happy to say that per the challenge terms, he'll be donating $210 to Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and Natalie and I will be matching his donation. Janet battled this disease for most of her life, and when I met her while she was in remission I got a profoundly strong sense of someone who recognized that tomorrow's not guaranteed. And if I learned anything from this, it's that no matter how nuts something sounds, if you want to try it, take your best shot. Thanks for being here and for listening. Let's do it again next year!

On Monday, Nannette and I flew home.

On Tuesday, breathing still hurt and I started feeling pain in my left shoulder. I went into QuickCare, where they immediately ran chest X-rays. I had a temperature of 99.6, blood pressure of 132/86, much higher than usual, and the same sharp pains when I was breathing.

I was diagnosed with a viral infection of my lungs and bronchial passageway, which he presumed caused pleurisy, and that’s what I competed with. The doctor said, “If your chest pain were caused by any kind of cardiac incident, you wouldn’t have been able to do the race. You’d have probably passed out or worse. But your pain’s on both sides and only when you breathe hard.”

He diagnosed rest. I stayed home from work and spent the day typing.

You’ve just finished reading the result of my not being able to breathe well-today and six months beforehand.

Any questions?